Washington’s claim to knowing what needs to be done is betrayed by its recent record in Iraq.
In March 2016, I wrote a piece in Al Jazeera that asked the question: what would happen if the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) lost control of Mosul tomorrow? The piece was a reaction to conventional wisdom that Mosul could not be liberated in 2016, as publicly stated by US intelligence officials at the time.
The Iraqi security forces (ISF) ultimately did advance quicker than most observers had anticipated. And with the ISF preparing to surround ISIL’s Iraqi capital in the next four to six weeks, it has suddenly become fashionable to think about the “day after” in Mosul.
On September 27, The New York Times ran an op-ed by the dedicated Iraq-watcher Ramzy Mardini, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council, under the provocative title “Don’t Defeat ISIS, Yet”.
Mardini’s argument is that Iraqi society in the ISIL-held areas has been too atomised under “a complex patchwork of ethnic, tribal and religious militias” for post-conflict stabilisation to be possible without extensive preparation.
The author’s policy prescription is for US President Barack Obama “to postpone the military campaign … [and] devote his remaining time in office to pressure the Abadi government to build a single military force that is tailored to liberate the rest of Nineveh”, the province led from Mosul. That would indicate no effort to liberate Mosul until at least the end of January 2017.
Then on September 29, the editorial board of The Washington Post weighed in with its leading editorial headline claiming: “The Obama administration is pushing Iraq into further chaos.”
The US earned huge contempt in Iraq for withholding our air strikes to enforce political compromises in the summer of 2014 even as ISIL massed in Baghdad's suburbs. We will not repeat this mistake again.
The acceleration of the Mosul offensive was characterised as “not good news” because the Iraqi government was “rushing the operation forward even though it lacks a strategy to secure and govern the multiethnic city”.
In order to get the operation started before US presidential elections on November 8, the Post accused the White House of prodding Iraq to move faster than they should on Mosul.
The Post also noted the absence of “serious steps to resolve long-standing disputes with Sunni and Kurdish leaders over territory, revenue and the delegation of powers to local governments”. This meant that “the Mosul offensive is setting the stage for a potentially catastrophic Day After problem”.
Though prudence is understandable, I would argue that calls for the US-led coalition to delay the Mosul offensive are somewhat impractical.
The US earned huge contempt in Iraq for withholding our air strikes to enforce political compromises in the summer of 2014 even as ISIL massed in Baghdad’s suburbs. We will not repeat this mistake again.
Many Iraqi actors also want to liberate Mosul soon, not least the Iraqi generals along the front who sense the enemy is collapsing. Other Iraqi forces will not wait if the coalition applies the brakes, notably the Iranian-backed elements of the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
Disastrous potential development
These are the predominately Shia militias who are only narrowly being restrained from taking part in the urban fighting in Mosul, the single most disastrous potential development that could befall the Mosul operation and a key reason to press on.
The Washington Post’s critique that no grand bargain has yet been struck with the Kurds over disputed areas is an indication of pie-in-the-sky thinking: in Iraq the real deal-makers know that the confidence to make grand bargains had to be built up gradually through tactical deals struck at lower levels.
If we wait to liberate Mosul until a grand bargain is struck on disputed hotspots such as Kirkuk and its oil, we will be fighting our way into a city full of young men who cannot remember a time before ISIL.
As we have learned so often over the past eight years, there may be a cost to potential courses of action but there can be a higher cost to inaction.
Probably the most constructive and practical comment on Mosul came from the former US military governor of Mosul, General David Petraeus, who wrote in The Washington Post on August 12, about his experiences running the newly occupied city in 2003-2004.
Petraeus noted that his mission was difficult but he did not equate complexity with hopelessness. Instead he broke the challenges down into a range of tasks relating to post-conflict security, reconstruction and representative governance.
The challenges of governing post-conflict Mosul are not simple and they may ultimately exceed the Iraqi government and Kurdistan Region’s capacity to cooperate, but they are not insurmountable challenges.
Mosul's Sunni Arab majority is not looking forward to its privileged existence being trampled by an unsettling new order, as was the case in 2003.
Pre-existing mechanisms for governance
Indeed there are more pre-existing mechanisms for governance (such as a legally elected provincial council and governor) and security (such as a set of Iraqi military commands led by trusted US-backed commanders) than Petraeus could draw upon in 2003.
As important, Mosul’s Sunni Arab majority is not looking forward to its privileged existence being trampled by an unsettling new order, as was the case in 2003. Today’s traumatised Moslawis are close to being liberated from a 30-month nightmare under a medieval dictatorship.
As long as Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga stay out of the city – outcomes the coalition has genuinely worked hard to ensure – then Mosul’s Sunnis may give the security forces a chance.
In 2003-2004 Petraeus and the US 101st Airborne Division made great gains in stabilising Mosul and winning the trust of locals, only to see Shia police commandos and sectarian decision-making in Baghdad undo the progress. In 2008-2011 the ISF nearly stabilised Mosul with US help by putting local leaders in charge, but again a sectarian wind from Baghdad wiped away the gains.
If Washington and other coalition capitals should focus on any timeline, it should be on the necessity of stretching the coalition’s support to Iraq after Mosul. In other words, don’t try to postpone Mosul, but do stay engaged in stabilising Mosul for longer.
Michael Knights is the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He specialises in the politics and security of Iraq. He has worked in every Iraqi province and most of the country’s hundred districts, including periods embedded with Iraq’s security forces.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.